I’m grateful to present another excellent guest entry. This post was penned by John Strazzabosco, author of Ninety Feet Under: What Poverty Does to People. An earlier version originally appeared in RochesterBeacon (2/14/20) with the title “Living Her Science” and is re-published here with his generous permission.
When Dr. Amani Allen enters a room what people typically notice are her gender and color. She is black. Based on that, white people in the room may begin sending stereotypical judgement through facial expression, posture, eye movement and subtle voice inflection. In her lifetime she will enter many rooms. This will likely cost Dr. Allen years off her lifespan with increased risk of illness along the way.
She knows this because she is an epidemiologist at University of California Berkeley, a scientist who studies chronic diseases. But lacking that information, the stereotypes in the room will be delivered (intentionally or not) based on what people see, Allen’s sensors will receive them as stressors, and her long-term consequences might range from inconvenient to deadly. She can’t know the severity but does know she’s in the distribution of the affected population. In a lecture before several thousand people at the Chatauqua Institution this past summer, Allen presented graphs and statistics that point directly at racism as culpable, and referencing her medical research she proved it like a District Attorney with a slam-dunk case.
As I sat listening and jotting down notes I was impacted more and more personally by the nature of this human tragedy. It’s one thing to consider racism victims out of sight and mind, and quite another to deny the growing medical dilemma for a bright shining star standing on the stage before you. She’s a heroine. You want good things for her. She’s doing good things for us. Her reward should include first glances of approval, not questioned acceptance nor instant disapproval based upon her color.
Dr. Allen projected slides to large amphitheater screens, showing four research graph curves. These depicted stress load rates that translate into getting old before one’s time for demographics of black and white females and males. She picked a black female point representing the aging of the average black woman, chronological age 30. That black female point matched up with a white female point about seven years older. This meant that black women were aging faster. Faster than anybody else. Much faster. In that same population herself, the vibrant Allen might be in the process of being robbed of ten years or more of her life, a victim of being female and black. No matter her doctorate, her research, socioeconomic position, or her humor, radiance, courage, DNA, gene structure or anything else.
In one sense, she remained much like the little girl she was during her very first racial experience which she related to us: in kindergarten, enduring the fingers of her white classmate who rubbed at the dark skin on the back of Allen’s hand expecting to “get the dirt off.” The little white girl was no doubt checking out a curiosity about a color different than her own. Allen was experiencing her first microaggression, innocent as it all certainly seemed, and maybe was. And maybe not.
Calvin Eaton, the founder and content organizer of the local Rochester NY education group 540WMain, mentioned in a comment recently that the average black person experiences five racist acts every day. At that rate Allen, starting at age five, might experience 63,875 racist acts directed at her through age 40, not counting the perhaps innocent kindergarten comment about her skin color being dirt. If we include Allen’s first five years too, that bumps her number to 73,000 racial slights, microaggressions, macroaggressions, frown, threats, unwanted touches of the hair, skin, or other body parts. Each of these aggressions might bring on a delivery of cortisol as the body tries to manage the related internal stress. Cortisol buildup affects brain cells and their synaptic connections. Also negatively affected at the same time are genes and chromosomes. Internalizing all these multiple aggressions will build up the average black woman’s stressor load quite mightily and cause her to age faster, a consequence that has the awkward name of “premature aging.”
Dr. Allen graciously e-mailed to this writer access to several of her research publications. One included research she had undertaken with seven other scientists, among them, Dr. Elissa Epel, and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, co-authors of the best-seller book, The Telomere Effect. Blackburn had won a Nobel prize for her earlier work with telomerase, an enzyme important in combating the premature aging that Allen referenced in her lecture. The deadly effects of premature aging are believed to be environmental, in other words, caused by previously mentioned outside stressors. Stressors might come from the trauma delivered by the quiet of a frown or smirk. Those traumas send stressors through the body through the nervous system. That seemingly benign “premature aging” term carries nasty specifics that apply to females of color, but also to a slightly lesser degree to black males, and lesser yet to white women. The results: all black American females risk getting sick sooner, from routine colds to more exotic setbacks, more often, more severely, and in more clusters of attacks. Other comparable health results of stressors reported by Epel and Blackburn are: Crohn’s, cardiac or gum disease, cardiovascular problems, immune cell weakening, and many other sicknesses, acting individually or maybe ganging up.
When I shared with Allen what I was writing she later told me in an e-mail that she “was in the distribution somewhere” of affected black females on her graph though she didn’t know where.
We might feel that we are making great progress in eliminating racial discrimination. Allen’s lecture and the science behind it are showing that we have a long way to go.
A note to subscribers: I am away for a time and have invited a couple of guest bloggers to contribute here. I’ll also have a limited listing of Resources and Action for the next few posts. Thanks for reading – and please contribute by leaving a Reply below!